Habitual social media users tend to post misinformation, hate speech and other dangerous content.
A new study from USC Dornslife helps shed light on the psychological reasons behind social media behavior. One might expect that social media users post more frequently when they receive positive engagement, such as likes or comments. However, this doesn’t explain why many people habitually spend time on social media apps even when not receiving engagement.
The study compared frequent, habitual users to infrequent, non-habitual users. Researchers Wendy Wood and Ian Anderson found that engagement on posts was far more motivating for infrequent non-habitual users than for frequent habitual users. The latter category’s usage was determined more by users’ association of the app with particular aspects of their daily routines than by the engagement they received. For example, if a user had a habit of posting on a social media app before going to sleep at night, they would continue to do so regardless of receiving likes or comments.
The researchers noticed that this behavior has worrying implications for the spread of misinformation and hate speech. Habitual users are likely to post misinformation regularly without being influenced by likes or comments from other users. Because the lack of positive reinforcement has little effect on habitual users, social media apps will have to design new interventions or structural changes to motivate habitual users to stop posting such content. Anderson stated, “Interventions that work for one type of user just don’t work for the other. There will have to be something really disruptive structurally on these social media sites to change the behavior of habitual users.”
Anderson and Wood’s findings can help ill the larger picture of social media app design and the spread of misinformation. Another study, “Moral Leniency Towards Belief-Consistent Disinformation May Help Explain Its Spread on Social Media,” also looked at the factors influencing users’ willingness to challenge or amplify misinformation. The article found that social media users were more likely to share misinformation that they felt aligned with their political beliefs or ideologies, even when they suspected the information to be untrue.
This finding may be unsurprising but is extremely frightening. It reveals a truth easily witnessed but seldom stated explicitly: social media users are more committed to upholding their personal beliefs than honestly educating others in good faith.
It’s clear from both of these studies that users are acting irrationally and in unexpected ways: sharing content they believe to be untrue and posting content consistently even in the absence of positive engagement. Moreover, excessive social media use has been linked to a rise in loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences assessed the effectiveness of “one sec,” an app designed to delay and decrease social media use. The app was found to prevent users from opening and using social media apps 36% of the time. It works by delaying social media apps from opening and prompting the user with a “deliberation message” explicitly stating what they are about to do. The goal of the app is to introduce more intentionality into use rather than mindless consumption.